Parshas Re’eh – How restrictive structure is the most liberating part of our lives

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By: Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfeld

Most pieces of music and poetry have refrains, a line or word that gets repeated throughout the song. This will usually become the title of the song and is the theme or idea that the artist wants to drill into your head. I think this week’s פרשה has a refrain. One phrase that keep showing up in slightly different variations and different contexts from beginning to end of the פרשה. במקום אשר יבחר יהוה לשום שמו שם, the place that Hashem chooses to place His Name. Hashem tells us not to bring קרבנות outside of that place, to bring our מעשר to that place, and to celebrate with our families there on the שלש רגלים. That place is the בית המקדש which is where Hashem’s presence contacts our world.

The beginning of the פרשה tells us something that will help us understand what this refrain is meant to teach us. Moshe presents two options to the people, blessing or curse. These are the two themes of every choice that we each face every minute of our lives. We can choose to listen to God and do as He would want us to do, which will result in us being blessed, or we can choose not to listen to what God wants us to do, which will result in us being cursed. When Moshe describes the “curse” side, he says, “The curse: if you shall not listen to the commandments of Hashem your God, and you shall stray from the path and serve other gods that you do not know.”

I think the common thread between these two phrases is the concept of restrictions. We can only serve Hashem in the place that He chooses, and we will be cursed if we stray from the path which conjures up the image of a road with rock retaining walls or fences on either side. This translates into the restrictive מצות that we all know and love. Don’t eat this, only eat those things in this order, wait before doing this. Today you are allowed to eat, tomorrow you have to eat and the next day you’ll go on death row if you eat. Wear this, don’t wear that, say this but only before this time. And as we all know the list goes on and on. Many of us see Judaism as a restrictive structure.

But I think that there is a gift hidden within all the restrictions. I had an extremely hard time understanding a seemingly unrelated חז”ל up until recently. The Pasuk says about the לוחות, והמכתב … חרות על הלוחות, that the letters of the לוחות were engraved on the לוחות. And the מדרש says, don’t read the word חרות with a קמץ (uh), rather read it חרות with צירי (ooh). Do not explain the Pasuk to be telling you that the letters were engraved, rather that they were free. But here is the problem, if you could jump into the mind of one of these letters, they are completely trapped inside this stone. They can’t move, budge, or change at all. So how in the world can you call that free?

The following explanation can help us understand this week’s פרשה as well. I had the זכות of living in Israel with my wife for a few years after we got married, and I remember when we moved back and went to the grocery store for the first time in America being completely overwhelmed. You see, in Israel, when you want an onion, you buy an onion. You want a potato, just take a potato off the shelf. But in America, you go to the store and there’s white onions, Spanish onions, red onions, pearl onions, or shallots. On the potato shelf, they have Yukon gold, russet potatoes, Idaho potatoes, baby potatoes, red potatoes, purple potatoes, and organic potatoes. Having too many options has an adverse effect on us.

To start, we get exhausted by the sheer volume of information that we need to process and contemplate. Then, even if we do decide, we are constantly second guessing our choice, since before we lock our minds onto something it exists as more of a fantasy than a reality. So, the option that we didn’t choose still lives in our minds and haunts us, making us think that we may have chosen wrong. And sometimes, with too many options, one simply will not choose at all due to paralysis by analysis.

What Hashem is doing to set us apart from the nations is limiting us from the start so that we won’t be crushed by the weight of too many options. By limiting us and restricting us, Hashem gave us the ability to hone our skills and grow. Think of someone in a college who doesn’t know what he wants to major in. He’ll take some economics, a little chemistry, a semester of astrology and a course of business management, but at the end of 4 years he won’t have anything. Contrast that with someone who knows that he wants to be a doctor, every single course that he takes is focused and goal oriented. Yes, he is technically restricted, but it is that very restriction which grants him the freedom to excel at what he set out to do.

Having the place that Hashem has chosen has another benefit as well. The nations would serve their gods wherever was convenient for them. As the Pasuk says, on a mountain, a valley or under a leafy tree. Their individual ways of serving are spread out and will never be unified. But Hashem draws us all in and tells us to bring whatever קרבןwill express our individuality, our עולה, שלמים, מעשר, תרומה, or a נדבה. But each of those individual קרבנות are lassoed in to the בית המקדש, the place where the beginning of mankind started, where the first physical piece of creation (the אבן השתיה) is. This is where heaven and earth kiss, and this is where Hashem unifies us and transforms us from multiple individuals to one nation.

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